Addiction Is a Disease, Not a Moral Failing

Do You Believe Addiction Is a Disease?

I suspect nearly every person who is reading these words has been touched by addiction and pondered whether addiction is a disease or not. Some believe it is. Others think it’s a matter of self-discipline. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s abrupt death rocked the foundation of the addiction community by underscoring the stunning realization that relapse can happen to the brightest of us and at any point of recovery. The fact PSH had every reason not to use drugs reinforces my belief that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing.

Maybe you lived with an alcoholic mother or father growing up. Perhaps your brother is a wake-and-bake marijuana smoker. You recall your binge-drinking bunkmate having another black-out which you all shrugged off as yet another crazy night in college. There’s a friend of yours who always seems to get a little too drunk a little too frequently. The co-worker who is constantly chiding the crew to go to happy hour that lasts until 9:00. But you drink too. You may wonder if you yourself have a problem when you wake up completely unmotivated with yet another prescription drug hang-over. It’s not addiction. Your knee really hurt. You fought with your husband. You had a cocktail to unwind. Drugs of choice take many forms: cocaine, oxycontin, food, weed, nicotine, methamphetamines, alcohol, gambling, shopping, working, sex, just to name a few.

addiction is a disease

Addiction runs in my family, and it is often not pretty.

I’ve dealt with addiction in many different ways over the years with the different addicts in my life. I have ignored it, obsessed about it, denied it, gotten really fucking mad about it, become resolute, sympathized, hidden it, empathized, tried to help, broadcast it, bargained, accepted it, gave ultimatums, cried amidst the chaos, divorced myself from it. One thing I have never done is to understand it, despite first-hand observation, researching and reading about addiction for years. I thought I was enlightened about addiction, having devoted so much energy to it over the course of my life. Turns out we all have a lot more to learn.

I read an incredibly insightful book about addiction recently that has burned an imprint in my brain. I find myself thinking of it often and I wanted to bring it to your attention. I can’t say enough good things about David Sheff’s Clean, published a year ago.

addiction is a disease

A few quotes from the book that really resonated with me:

“Using drugs or not isn’t about willpower or character. Most problematic drug use is related to stress, trauma, genetic predisposition, mild or serious mental illness, use at an early age or some combination thereof.”

“Addicts aren’t morally bereft. They’re ill. Addiction is a disease with a neurologic basis- a mental illness.”

“Most drug use is about coping with life, not about the drugs.” Do you think at the end of a harrowing day at the office or wrangling children that you deserve a drink to relax? That’s about dealing with stress. It’s not about how much you love the taste of wine.

Who is the addict in your life? What are you doing to cope with him or her?

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  1. agwinam

    Thanks Jen, the addict in my life, or at least the most important one, is my brother. I have grown exhausted with trying to help him, you and others have coached me and I have coached and supported him. I can’t fix him and sometimes I think he’s seeking new lows just to push away the people who love him. There is no doubt in my mind that my brilliant and motivated brother has a physical condition that keeps him from dealing with life in healthy ways. Just wish I knew how to help him. Lately my attitude can be summed up like that song that says “say something, I’m giving up on you.”

  2. Ann

    I couldn’t agree with you more.
    Jen, thank you. Your brave words make it easier for others to share their experiences.

    Sadly, addiction, like all mental illness, still faces it’s biggest challenge: denial.

    Who wants to admit they’re living with depression or bipolar disorder or anxiety?? Everything I’ve read about addiction points to the drinking and drug use as symptomatic behavior of the underlying “problem.”

    That problem is about as easy to understand as tax code for those who just don’t get math.

    I have lived with depression for nearly two decades. To be truthful though, that’s when it was first diagnosed as “situational depression,” but there were episodes long before then. It wasn’t until a relative of mine and I were talking about depression that we realized mental illness could be traced back several generations in our family. No one talked about it.
    It was a family secret that became disguised as alcoholism or dramatic personalities.

    It was and has always been a very difficult thing for me to admit that I have major depression. There are many reasons, but it really comes down to a fear of judgement from people who are either unkind or just don’t know the facts about mental illness.

    There’s also a lot of judgement about addiction. I try not to judge, but I will admit there was a time I was really, really angry at the addict I lived with. Now I think I understand what it means to “hate the disease, but love the person.”

    Sadly, my marriage didn’t make it and our children and many others were affected by that loss. For years I tried to assign blame for that failure. The truth is nobody is to blame. It’s a waste of time and energy to blame the addict or the person who is depressed (bipolar, schizophrenic, anxious or whatever) when really we should try to put our energy into finding better treatment options or having an open dialogue on what plagues so many of our families.

    There is hope.

    There are many more treatment options now than ever before. There are more people living with mental illness. And there is power in numbers.

    In my experience, the first step is acknowledging, changing behaviors and realizing that this is most likely a disease you’ll be living with for the remainder of your life.

    Too often, it takes many years of suffering; going on and off Meds, continuing to stay in unhealthy relationships and struggling to survive before finally accepting this is not going to go away like a cold. And it’s something you have to actively treat through whatever healthy (and legal) means work for you.

    Maybe it’s not something for us to understand Jen, but rather to accept.

    Acceptance may one day lead to a more compassionate world. Maybe then we’ll be able to work towards a cure.

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